La Gomera: a promising place for sustainable tourism
From Los Gigantes we can see La Gomera lying like a mysterious blue dragon, blunt snout to the south. We’d been talking for some time about taking a trip over. Everyday we watched with interest to see how often a thick blanket of cloud cleared all but the base of the island. I have heard fascinating stories about an ancient forest in La Gomera that had survived the ice age, laurels and endemic species not found anywhere else on earth. My curiosity was piqued.
As an environmental philosopher, I’m interested in exploring how the environment has changed, any conservation efforts, how pollution has affected a place, and how tourism, the main industry for The Canary Islands as a whole, could be more sensitive to the place. Perhaps, even act as a positive push towards restoration and protection of habitats and species.
Could the idea of a more responsible tourism transform places to be more resilient in the face of climate change,rather than being a key driver of carbon emissions?
Finding the balance between the negative and positive side of tourism is a tough nut to crack. The pandemic has pushed tourism in the Canaries to the brink. A fall in Spain’s income from tourism activity equivalent to the 1930s dip was felt in 2020. However, the country simply cannot afford to continue to furlough an industry on which a large part of the economy here, formal and informal, depends.
We began our trip very early – 7am. Clear instructions from the guide on what we needed and what to do when we got to the other side, we felt confident and well prepared. With my environmentalist’s hat on, I had a look around. The port at Los Cristianos, particularly the ferry terminal, could do with a facelift if it wants to raise awareness of the issues like biodiversity loss and pollution among the sea-going passengers. Having said that, the walls to the port are lined with fabulous murals of all manner of species of whales, dolphins, fish and other marine delights. The walls of the port could so easily be augmented with an information board, perhaps both, highlighting how ships are becoming more eco-aware, and informing about the scourge of our time: ocean plastics.
Each stop afforded a new delight – a view of a town, a towering magma rock, forest, a hermitage – and we clambered obediently on and off the coach to admire and photograph, as no doubt millions by now had done before us. I noticed an extensive section of bare branches, skeletons of trees long dead, stark against the backdrop of deep green. I asked at one stop and was told by the guide, oh, that was the fire in 2012. I had never heard about this fire. We were told about the black centuries – three hundred years! – of pirating and pillage, emigration and conquest. Nothing about the fire. Nothing about slavery either. Columbus leaving from San Sebastian had earned the island its current second Spanish name: La Isla Columbina (the island of Columbus). But why it was named Gomera, I have still to discover.
After our fine lunch and a brief, amusing introduction to Silbo, the whistling language, by an excellent if very bored-looking elucidator of the art, we had a brief time to look around the area, La Laguna. We noted the long walking routes that traversed the island and knew that that’s what we would aim for next time. We looked in vain for the site of the aforementioned laguna, a seasonal lake, we had been told. Nothing. Camper vans and barbeque stations. I wondered if this was ominous. Is the area drying up? We could find no one to ask.
Our trip meandered down through the forests and I noted the burnt trees, something the guide had not mentioned. We found ourselves perilously perched on the edge of a turning several times as traffic tried to negotiate its way by the coach. There was a magnificent viewing point overlooking Villa Hermosa, which really is spectacular, and an old cultural centre, a reconstruction of a house and how people had lived in previous centuries.
Villa Hermosa seemed surprisingly familiar. Rather like a construction of a west of Ireland dwelling from two or three centuries ago. If this was how the Guanches lived, there was very little to indicate that they were any more ‘primitive’ than any other rural community. One big difference was religion. The Guanche people put their dead into caves where their bones were sometimes found mixed with those of animals. This tradition may be misunderstood, of course: I haven’t done any research into this but it’s certainly an area worth further study. My mind went to wondering about how the new and old traditions had merged, as they inevitably do, when one culture’s traditions overthrew those of the former inhabitants.
The port area showed clear evidence that it has a long-standing history here: stone bollards in the water for ships showed that even before the advent of air freight there was important trade going on here. It struck me that a conversation about alternatives might even allow a few visitors who might be interesting in contributing ideas to do so to the benefit of everyone. Maybe this is the future of sustainable tourism: opportunities to have a conversation about what we’re doing, and what we can do differently, could grow out of these exchanges. I could certainly envisage a much less clear cut line between the programmes to restore, rewild and reafforest the interior with agroforestry, permaculture, and plantations as a patchwork of intersecting and mutually supporting business and tourism opportunities right down to the coast.
A week later, I learned that National Geographic has a feature, including a front cover photograph, of La Gomera as the next great hiking destination. I felt both delighted that the place is receiving the kind of superstar treatment it undoubtedly deserves, and piqued that my own attempts to write about this beautiful place are now overshadowed by a glossy magazine journalist, with all the machinery of an international budget behind their work.
Yet, of course, my aim is not to sell La Gomera: I’m already sold, and I have no skin in the game, as it were. My aim is to tease apart the middle way, the way so many of us have to travel, with a very limited budget, wanting to do the least damage possible, to see and experience as much as we can, and also to create and develop opportunities to make tourism less of a one-way experience of take, and more take.
So many of us would like to give something back.
Perhaps this reflection on La Gomera might get others to think about ways we might be able to start a conversation, and make small actions that can add up to something meaningful. In the meantime, La Gomera, we salute you!